A Barmy Ghost
I first began following Richard Brautigan in 1986. By this time, he had been dead for 2 years.
So, haunted, I was following a ghost, a barmy ghost first ensorcelled by the incandescence of a haunted decade called The Sixties, in an enchanted fiefdom called America, a place of libraries and trout streams, watermelon sugar and loco weed.
This is not fancy on my part. This ghost, the ghost of the writer Richard Brautigan, was as real as man’s wonder, as solid as, as Mark Twain said, a globe of mud. And I followed, at first, out of fear and astonishment, and then, reader, out of love.
So, this, like many a tragedy before it, is a love story.
My Name is Jack
One normally comes to Richard Brautigan the same way one comes to the Beats. In early adulthood, when the world seems maladjusted and slightly off its axis. When the establishment, that you’ve been longing to deride, seems ready-made for ridicule, dadaism, revolt. These writers speak to young minds like spirits to mediums.
Thus it was for me. I read The Abortion when I was 21. It became a very personal book for me, a totem, a talisman. I carried my little orange mass market paperback around with me as if in so doing I could transform myself from the moony, wispy, inconsequential struggling college student into a force for art and lunacy and holy hipsters and change.
In a way that little paperback created a new me. I quit college and got a job in a bookstore. I wanted to be a bohemian in the worst way. Forget that I came from the shitbox suburbs of a minor Mid-American city. Oklahoma City did not have a golden gate. It had an industrial decuman. I was on the bus. I was headed Further On.
My name is Jack.
One’s Need for the Quest, or Sir Galahad, Are you Really Taking your Olivetti?
Next, I read The Revenge of the Lawn, a collection of short stories. But, were these short stories? They were certainly unlike anything I had come across in school. They had Hemingway’s reticence and brevity but seemed to peter out before reaching a Hemingwayesque conclusion. They were witty and weird and made out of ticky-tack. In short, I loved them. And, in a way, I was thumbing my nose at my college professors, the ones who hadn’t read a book published since 1945. The ones who made me read musty old dead men who told tales dripping with sense of place and character development. I admit: I was a nose thumber.
But that doesn’t diminish Brautigan’s appeal. His charm. He is one of the most charming, beguiling authors ever to put Olivet to foolscap. Bless his blond head, I thought.
And, of course, at this time Richard Brautigan was alive and, I thought, living in San Francisco, the birthplace of hippiedom, the home of City Lights Bookstore, a halidom, Mecca for radical readers. The truth was that he was all over the place: Montana, Japan, Nirvana. But I had him placed in San Francisco, and it was to San Francisco that I was to make my first adult journey, on a holy quest, with the zeal of a would-be poet and street-fighter.
The Straight Line was Called Interstate 40
By this time I had devoured all of Brautigan’s books. The year was 1975. The year before I had taken another step on that shimmering stairway to adulthood: I had bought my first hardback book, The Hawkline Monster. It stamped my ticket. I had to travel. I had to find the roots of these works of wonder.
I was dewy-eyed. I was goony. And, worst of all, I was not a traveler.
I scrounged a map off my father—it was old enough that it said “Esso” on it, and this magic word: Free. But it showed me something else, something that I took as a sign, at a time when I took many things as signs. There was a straight line between Oklahoma City and The West Coast. That straight line was called Interstate 40. It was new. It was virginal. It demanded that I climb aboard.
My parents took the news of my imminent departure with their customary incongruous hysteria.
“You can’t just take off,” my mother said, with the kind of finality one expected of life-changing pronouncements.
“Where will you stay?” my more practical father added.
“I’ll find places,” I said, unsure of myself, but sensing that this step—the denouncing of the pull of one’s genitors—was an important one.
“You’ll find places,” my mother spat.
“What about your job?” my father asked.
“I’ve already asked Mrs. Tweedy. She said I could take a vacation, though I wouldn’t qualify for a paid one for another six months.”
“That’s another thing. Money.”
They had me there. I had very little money. I was drunk on the 60s. Money was evil, something gas companies created by raping the Mid-east, something bankers stacked up in their bedroom to tantalize starlets. Filthy lucre.
Blood money. Or, as Freud, who I hadn’t read at that time, would have it: shit.
“I was kind of hoping,” I said, my emboldened Sweet Sir Galahad stance going limp, “that you would lend it to me.”
Reader, they reluctantly agreed that I was old enough to make my own disasters. And my father pulled me aside—oh, sweet secret colloquy—and asked me how much I thought I needed.
The Steering Wheel Felt Like A Dali Watch
The Steering wheel felt like a Dali watch. It seemed to melt in my hands. It would not stay upright, round, functional. I was dreaming.
It was the night before I was to leave.
I abandoned that rack of torture, the insomniac’s bed, and took to the chair under the lamp in the den. There I re-read passages from In Watermelon Sugar and The Pill Versus the Springhill Mining Disaster. I studied the photographs on the covers. Brautigan. Kind-spirit.
The white night stretched out in front of me like a magic carpet. I was already traveling.
And though I worried that the lack of sleep might hinder my performance behind the wheel of a car, I was kissed by angels, the angels of whimsy, the angels of surrealism. Bookish angels!
And when dawn broke—an egg on a radiator—I was ready. I can do this, I said to myself and myself answered, that’s a pretty poor pep talk, but, hell, let’s give it a shot.
Charon, Steer me Past L.A.
Oklahoma City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco.
The straight line that my imagination had created took me first to Los Angeles—I had to take a Bugs Bunny left to get to my ultimate destination. The City of Angels they call it. A great big freeway they call it.
I was happy to head toward Hippie Central. Los Angeles seemed Stygian to me. And when I first drove into SF I felt like a mariner touching land. But I was not a mariner—a buccaneer—but a footpad, a cross-country adventurer, a naïf. The city that opened before me like a book, a euchologion, was beautiful in its ramshackle, hilly recklessness. My heart gulped air like my carburetor. If a carburetor gulps air. I say it does.
I found a seedy hotel near Portrero Hill. I was sure Brautigan had mentioned Portrero Hill. It seemed a good augury. My first Brautigan-flash, an ur-epiphany. The gateway to later epiphanic synchronicity. This is the way my mind worked. Stay with me.
And when I threw my tired body down on that plywood bed I knew the exhilaration of the fortunate, the blessed. I was in San Francisco, in my own hotel room. I immediately lowered my faded bell-bottoms and masturbated, looking at the Maine-shaped water stain on the ceiling and in it seeing the face of every woman I had ever wanted.
It was a rite of passage. My propylaeum to adulthood.
The saintly ostiary waved me by.
The Map of Me
My name is Jack.
My name is Jack and I am in San Francisco, the same city where Richard Brautigan resides. Or so I believe.
Do I expect to run into him on the street?
Do I expect to stop him and say, “Richard Brautigan, you are more than the sum of your parts; you are a special piece of my personal geography, the map of me?
Why am I here?
Why is anyone?
Why is anyone?
So, on my first day in San Francisco I go where any literary hobo would go, to The Promised Land. To City Lights Bookstore.
And there I am as comfortable as a dog in Lent.
Immediately, I imbibe the atmosphere of the place, like reading the ancient texts through breathing in the smoke of them burning. There is a poetry magazine wall!
And, there on that poetry magazine wall is a small poetry magazine called Antigone’s Jockstrap.
And in Antigone’s Jockstrap is a small poem called, “School’s Out.”
And the poet’s name is Jack, the same as mine.
Did I mention that I write poetry?
Because it is my poem, accepted by this peculiar little magazine about a month before.
I am as if sanctified.
I hold the magazine up and look around me—am I about to exclaim publicly? A man in a soiled, floor-length duster, which seems crazy indeed in summer, looks at me like I’m Rod McKuen. I put Antigone’s Jockstrap back in its place and grin sheepishly.
This is Day One, not counting the meal I ate at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown—Hot and Sour Catfish Soup, Bun Cha Gio, a cool Tsing Tao.
It was a good meal and I thanked my waiter a tad profusely.
The second day in San Francisco I return to City Lights Bookstore. I’m beginning to lose the sense of purpose which sent me westward.
I browse the poetry shelves. It’s a whole world, a miniature world, black marks on paper, but, nevertheless, a world as ripe as ass’s milk. It’s where I want to live.
I go back upstairs. Did I mention there are two levels to City Light’s Bookstore? Do I need to?
There’s a bohemian manning the cash register. Of course there is. He looks like he is a jazz musician. I’m intimidated with my Oklahoma City accent and my hippie clothes bought at J.C. Penney’s. I imagine he sees through me.
I make bold.
I ask him, “Um, does Mr. Ferlinghetti come in often?”
He answers me as if I am a human being. This is kind of him.
“He normally comes in about this time to check the mail.”
“Mm,” I say, as if that is of minor interest to me. “Thank you.”
I return to the poetry shelves where I find a small Frank O’Hara. Frank O’Hara makes me happy. He can make me happy on the bleakest of days. I read: “Is your throat dry with the deviousness of following?”
This quote will reveal its import later, like a tiny timebomb in my psyche.
Upstairs I hear Mr. Ferlinghetti’s vivid voice. I grab a copy of his Selected Poems off the shelf and scuttle up the stairs.
Once out of the depths I gasp for air. Mr. Ferlinghetti hasn’t noticed me yet—he didn’t see my precipitate and foolish dash.
“Hello,” I manage.
He looks up.
“Hi,” he says. He looks like The Cat in the Hat if The Cat in the Hat were the godfather of beat poetry.
“Would you mind signing this?” I ask him. I hand him his own book. “And I’ll buy it,” I think to add, just in case they think I am a scofflaw. But, perhaps, a part of me whispers, scofflaws are honored here.
“What’s your name?”
“Where you from, Jack?”
“What brings you to San Francisco?”
I’m doing all right. I’m holding my own.
“Holy quest,” I say, with a trace of irony.
“Ah,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti says and hands the paperback book back to me.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Good luck,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti says.
Back out on the street I open the book. He has written, “For Jack, who knows a good quest when he sees one.”
I am consecrated.
I go back to Chinatown for dinner.
The Sky is a Sheet of Foolscap
On the third day I begin my quest for Richard Brautigan in earnest.
I head to People’s Park.
The day is like a young girl, milk and roses. The sky is a sheet of foolscap. There are young people everywhere, women in silks and little else.
Every glimpse of midriff is a razor across my heart.
Still my heart expands.
I can’t take my eyes off one gypsy-woman, dancing with a tambourine to a song played on a recorder by her lover, an Ian Anderson look-alike, even down to his dirty raincoat. She gyrates and swirls, Ezmeralda, Salomé.
And that is when I have a vision.
There’s an old woman on a park bench, muttering to herself, clad in an abundance of castoff raiments, too much clothing for so temperate a day. She holds in her hand a book.
As I pass her she looks up. Her face is suddenly young, beautiful. It is the face of Joan of Arc. She is Joan of Arc.
I stop. I look at her book. It’s a pornographic novel called Jill’s Gangbang.
Joan of Arc fixes me with a fiery eye.
I am in love. My trousers stiffen. She reaches out her hand toward the bulge in my middle self….
And I woke up back in my hotel room. The clock said 4:35. I was starving.
I sat up.
My pants were around my ankles and there was dried come on my belly.
And on the third day he rose….
The Absence of Richard Brautigan and the Franz Kline Shirt
Time is passing and I realize I am no closer to Richard Brautigan than I was back in Oklahoma City. On the fourth day I begin to ask strangers if they know how to contact Richard Brautigan.
I wander the streets, lonely as a crowd.
I eat a gyro sandwich I buy from a small café, the cucumber sauce dripping onto my shirt front as I walk. After I finish eating I try to rub my shirt clean with the Kleenex-size napkin they provided. I make a smear that looks something like a Franz Kline painting.
I walk back to City Lights Bookstore. I am getting nowhere.
I bolster myself and ask the beatnik clerk if he knows where I can find Richard Brautigan. I understand that I am as foolish as a beetlehead.
He says, “Yeah. I think he’s in Japan.”
“Really?” I ask, trying not to sound twelve years old.
“I believe so,” he says.
“Hm,” I say, as if I had an appointment with him and he has disappointed me.
“Anything else?” he asks. He’s sort of half-smiling so I’m not sure if he wants me to move on or not.
“Ok.” He goes back to his copy of The Village Voice.
“Oh, do you know where his house is? The one in San Francisco?” I’m slipping away.
“Ok,” I say.
“Ok,” he says, too.
How Richard Brautigan Was (Is) a Conduit of Pure Love and Pure Destruction
After I left City Lights bookstore I felt a bit down. My shirt smelled and my quest was fizzling.
I am walking down Columbus when I see her.
She is reading Revenge of the Lawn and swaying toward me on the sidewalk. She seems practiced in reading and walking at the same time. It’s not easy. Try it some time.
She was (is) as lovely as a fairy dancing in a sunbeam.
She has chocolate colored hair and freckles and her body moves with the grace of an ocelot. She was (is) lithe. She was (is) willowy.
“Ah, Brautigan,” I try as she draws nigh.
She looks up. Her eyes were (are) grey. She stops my heart.
“Yes,” she says.
“I loved that one,” I say.
She looks at her book as if she can’t remember what she is reading.
“Uh huh,” she says.
We stand at an impasse. A great gulf opens up between us and if I do not bridge it quickly she will diminish like a morning’s frost.
“I—” I begin.
“You’re not from here,” she breaks in.
My accent. Hick, is what she’s thinking.
“Right,” I say. “Oklahoma City.”
“Jack,” I say, and stick out my hand.
She stares at me for a second. Is this a knife I see before me? She is unsure. She wants to fix me like a photograph.
I don’t take it in. I am lost in her eyes.
“Hm?” I say.
“Like Marilyn with an S. Or Sh. My parents,” she says and shrugs.
“Lovely” I say.
She laughs a quick laugh, almost a bark.
“You,” I say. I don’t know where it came from.
She hesitates a heartbeat. Then she beams.
“I’ve never been called lovely before.”
“You should have been. Every day.” I have a tendency to go too far, too fast. I reined in.
“My, aren’t you, what? flirtatious?”
“Do you want to get a cup of coffee?”
Again the heartbeat.
“Sure,” she says. “I’m on lunchbreak.”
“Ok,” I say.
“You have a Franz Kline smear on your shirt,” she says.
A Difficult Name, An Enchantment
It turned out she worked in publishing, for this firm that specialized in handsomely produced volumes, with little text, but gorgeous artwork. The kind of book you gave to your hip aunt. Almost a coffee table book, but not quite. A little funkier than that. This was their forte, their raison d’etre. They had cornered the market on funky chic.
Her full name was, is, Sharilyn Chwedyk. A difficult name, an enchantment, the secret word the elves bestow to enter their sovereignty.
In that 33 minutes we had together we made a connection. Who can say why it works sometimes and sometimes it does not? The world is agley and humans mere corks on the sea.
We made a date for that night.
In a way we had to work in double-time. We had to speed things up. I wasn’t in San Francisco forever.
That night we went to a small art theater, the kind of place I had only read about, the kind of thing Oklahoma City wouldn’t know what to do with. A movie theater on the side of a large carnival house, run by a couple who lived above it.
The movie was Godard’s Alphaville. I love Alphaville.
But I could not concentrate. I wanted only to kiss Sharilyn Chwedyk.
And, friends, I did. Later, after the movie, leaning against the wall of my hotel, in the waning hours of that day. She had driven me back to my hotel in her Volkswagen. I loved that she drove a Volkswagen. I love(d) much about Sharilyn Chwedyk.
And when I held her—it was that kind of kiss—her willowy body felt like love’s last best song. A twining vine. The kiss went on and on. It held promise, futurity, velleities.
We made plans to meet after she got off work the next day.
We were going to Chinatown for dinner.
She was Peppery with Freckles, a Paphian Tangle
It’s after dinner. We are at her apartment. The kind of apartment you can afford if you live in San Francisco and work for a small publisher. But decorated with taste and just the right dollop of strangeness.
There was a poster of the actress, Jean Seberg, as Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc.
There was a large, knitted Ojo.
There was a cat named Pudding.
There was a couch, as soft as a daydream, upon which she bent backward to receive my kiss and hands. A couch upon which we unclothed and felt along the wayward lines of each other’s body.
She took me firmly in her hand. Her grip was strong—she had thin, firm hands, tapered fingers, peppery with freckles. She moved me up and down as expertly as I could do myself.
I knelt to place my mouth upon her moistened middle. She flushed deeply, her chest a quick and bright mottle, a celestial, roseate flame.
“Oh my,” she said.
And when I entered her it was as if we had been lovers for all time, Ulysses and Penelope, Pyramus and Thisbe, William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Sharilyn Chwedyk moved underneath me like a snake, her skin fresh like a freshet. Sharilyn Chwedyk sat upon me like faith’s hue, moving her surprisingly ample bottom—up until then disguised by her hippie dresses—the way the wind moves the waves.
And, believe this or don’t: we came simultaneously. Our howls commingling in perfect harmony.
Lennon and McCartney.
I fell so hard, friends. I fell so far.
James Joyce said, “First we feel. Then we fall.”
This is the story I wish to tell.
Richard Brautigan became unreal to me that night. Even as Revenge of the Lawn lay splayed like a broken bird on the coffee table nearby.
We looked at each other. We recognized something. Perhaps you who have been there have a name for it.
Her body shone like ambergris beside me. And, reader, excuse this indiscretion: Sharilyn had the wettest, prettiest sex I’d ever touched, kissed, sucked. She ran like the world’s first rivers. I still relished its kinship with damp loam, as we lay in the aftermath, sticky with humors.
“I hardly know what to say,” I said.
“I don’t either,” she said.
“May I stay the night?” I asked, a courtier.
She smiled and my heart went ka-chunk.
“Yes, you may,” she said.
She stood up and I sat still for a moment so that I could watch her walk away. Her underside was a prothalamion. She was as sexy as a fire.
“Come on,” she said.
I stood up.
“Oh, wait,” I said.
I turned back and picked up Revenge of the Lawn and placed a magazine subscription form in it as a bookmark. It was no longer a wounded bird. It was the charm which brought me together with Sharilyn Chwedyk.
“Strap yourself to the tree with roots.
You ain’t going nowhere.”
Consider the silence in the
stillness, the silence
of music, of two hearts
rubbed together. There is
strength and austerity
and the sturdy sophistic
stillness of the silence.
It is in the unreasoning that
we bloom, the silent
I write this to a strange woman
I’ve never met, hoping my words
will make her love me.
We are all lonely in the face of
what we have to say, even if
we have nothing to say.
I Fall into Sharilyn Chwedyk the way Small Birds Beaten by the Storm Fall
I had three more days in San Francisco. Thoughts of the hippie-surrealist writer whose writings had brought me west immerged like dew. I was retted with this foxy, slender woman, whose every movement seemed to me to embody a smoldering sexuality. Sharilyn, who is both dark and light—chocolate hair and skin like sea foam. And those
freckles—they were a map to her soul, to my soul, to the linking of two souls. Do I overspeak? No.
Favorite memory of those first heady days: well, the sex, of course. Who, honestly would say otherwise?
Also: the day we spent driving all over that transcendent city, whose surface is like a rumpled counterpane, in search of used books. There are as many used bookstores in San Francisco as there are churches, or so it seemed to me on that magickal day.
Am I misremembering this? There was one called An Unclean Dimly Lit Place for Books? In which I found a paperback of Tarzan of the Apes, a book I’d always meant to read—I know, it’s not exactly Thomas Mann. But therein I found this gem of a line: “Tarzan began to hold his own kind in but low esteem.”
Other memorable bargains from that cornucopia of literature: a cheap first edition of Peter Devries’ delightful Reuben, Reuben. A trade paperback of Tanizaki’s The Key. A nice hardback of A Coffin for Dimitrios. Sharilyn bought a fine Modern Library of Six Plays by Ibsen.
And to keep on track: I splurged on a first edition of In Watermelon Sugar. The same dealer—I can’t remember which, though I think it was either Books by the Bay, or The Republic of Letters—had a Please Plant this Book, with all seed packets attached, but my wallet would not allow.
And all the while, by my side, smiling enthusiasm and warmth, the willowy, the pluvial Sharilyn Chwedyk.
Who reads Ibsen?
There are Angels in the Postal Service
Who said all good things come to an end? Who was the first man to utter this jail sentence, this sword of Damocles, under which humankind has labored for centuries?
We would not let it end.
When we parted, in the airport terminal (terminal, friend) it was with rich promises and hungry kisses. There was the telephone, the angels in the postal service, and, hope against hope, the occasional flight between Oklahoma City (weak, dead fizgig end) and San Francisco (The Garden).
We would stay together through stubborn insistence, through passion. It was meant to be. This is how we felt.